Many parallels exist between the college campus divestiture campaigns of the 1980s and today. Both were/are seeking to apply intense student and community pressure to persuade boards of trustees to get endowment monies out of investments in businesses or locations perceived as undesirable. In the ’80s it was South Africa and Apartheid that students objected to. Back then, one could almost conceive of college students versus a beleaguered South African government as something of a fair fistfight between entities with comparable chances of winning popular opinion and thus investment dollars to their side. And indeed the students did ultimately prevail, redirecting investment capital away from South Africa, thus driving government capitulation on Apartheid, a historical bright spot that is now giving inspiration and belief in the power of action to a new generation.
Sierra Club Executive director Michael Brune speaks at Bill Mckibben’s “Do the Math” 350.org tour in Durham, N.C., November 19, 2012 (Image source: Appalachian Voices, photo by Kevin Sewell).
But this time is different. This time the enemy, the target of proposed divestiture, is not a group of entrenched old men clinging to their racist past, but instead the wealthiest and most profitable industry in human history, fossil fuels. The fossil fuels industry and its several parts and cronies, big oil, big coal, natural gas, and some large financial institutions, will not retire as quietly into the night. Indeed, they began firing the first shots in this war decades ago when they first perceived that renewables could one day disrupt their extremely efficient and profitable businesses. Media disinformation about climate and renewables, influencing elections, lobbying, buying fossil fuels favorable policy; these are just some of the ways they’ve been pre-fighting the war of divestiture for decades.
Further, the fossil fuels industry along with its allies on Wall Street has actually been waging a divestment campaign on renewables stocks, particularly over the last two years. Using major media outlets to decry renewable energies and label them “pipe dreams,” and “untenable” “job killers”(they’re actually the reverse), and using tactics such as misrepresenting renewable energy companies’ earnings on-air, they have been mounting an economy-wide renewables divestiture campaign under the guise of normal financial coverage and popular opinion. This push to dictate conventional wisdom and thus discourage anyone from wanting to invest in renewables is also given legitimacy via biased bank research reports. Finally, renewable stocks are beaten down to their penny-stock graves by concentrated short selling attacks where multiple banks and other institutions join in selling as many shares of the target company as they can whether or not they actually have the shares to sell to drive the price down to where no reasonable lay investor can still imagine there is any value.
They have been working hard and long, and largely successfully, to maintain their status quo. This time, it’ll take more than a few campus shanty towns and disrupted trustee board meetings to earn change.
So to me it seems like 350.org‘s divestiture campaign to get money out of fossil fuels stocks is brilliant in that it is the first time we’re fighting fire directly with fire. We need to understand that this time around we’re bringing the fistfight to an armored division, and that we’re bringing it maybe two decades late. But, finally, rather than just protesting, we’re sending – or trying to send- the only message oil bosses understand: that there now may be a threat to their equity share prices, public opinion, and, soon, even short term revenues. We’re finally getting onto their turf.
So, just maybe, speaking their language will get them to understand that we must and will transform our energy society into one that can thrive on a finite earth, and also that the builders and inventors of the tech and systems that will get us there stand to earn enormous profits. Joining in this new wave of innovation, in other words, is the way forward for these behemoths of the past if they want to maintain their relevance in the final scheme of things. Impacting their share price is a good way to start attracting their attention.
Finally, let’s recall that in the U.S., support of ending Apartheid became a non-partisan issue college students now have the opportunity show big oil that this isn’t a republican or democrat issue; renewables aren’t just supported by liberals, but by all people who are hopeful for our future and feel a responsibility to right the course of the planet’s economies.
So please, charge on with the divestment campaign, we’ll even be here to help, but remember that unlike last time, our adversary is resourceful and unfathomably rich, so there will certainly be some blowback along the way. If we can advance by baby steps divestiture of a college or two here and there I would hail that as a tremendous start and a victory, then, rebel like, we can leverage those early gains, combined with stories about times when we were set back, into tales that inspire faith that the world’s largest industry really can be challenged.
Garvin Jabusch is co-founder and chief investment officer of Green Alpha ® Advisors, and is co-manager of the Green Alpha ® Next Economy Index, or GANEX and the Sierra Club Green Alpha Portfolio. He also authors the blog “Green Alpha’s Next Economy.”